Education, Illustration, Lessons Learned In Combat, Literacy

Everything I’ve Learned about Illustration Study…

..has not yet been realized. After all, I only began dipping my toe into these lovely waters two years ago, when I first read Katie Wood Ray’s fantastic book on the subject, In Pictures and In Words: Teaching the Qualities of Good Writing Through Illustration Study (2010)But in that short amount of time, I have learned some very valuable lessons about what works and what doesn’t work (and what matters vs. what doesn’t matter). Although– as with everything in life–I’m still learning, here are some of the most important lessons I’ve gained so far.

Lesson 1: Start with picture books you (and your students) absolutely, positively LOVE.

  • Book lists* or lists of illustration mentors can be great resources, but learning is most effective when there is some engagement and significance involved. You will likely find much more to notice about illustrations (and enjoy doing so) with a book you are already familiar and enamored with. I began my own illustration “noticing” with Marla Frazee’s work, simply because 1) she’s badass and 2) my two daughters forced me to read her book Santa Claus the World’s Number One Toy Expert approximately 4,268 times over the course of several years. I fell in love with it during our first read (Marla, if you’re reading this, the Post-Its are what did me in), but I didn’t truly appreciate it for what it is until I read Katie’s book and began noticing the illustration and writing moves Marla makes throughout the book.
You could spend a whole unit studying the cover alone.

Lesson 2: Don’t let the BUT I CAN’Ts stop you or your students from trying some illustration moves.

  • BUT I CAN’Ts are awful beings. They prevent us from taking appropriate risks with everything, the nasty cretins. If you or your students think you can’t, you won’t. Instead, remind yourself and your students that you can always try. One of my favorite responses to a BUT I CAN’T is to ask, “But what would you do if you could? I want to see that.”
Warning signs include a crumpled-up face.
Warning signs include a crumpled-up face.

Lesson 3: Never underestimate the awesomeness of your students.

  • Throughout my short career as an educator, during which I have attempted to teach everyone from ages 0-40+, I have learned never to short-change my students’ capabilities. They, almost 100% of the time, blow me away with their knowledge, their creativity, and–particularly during an illustration study–their ability to notice FAR MORE about the work we are studying than I could ever notice. This is especially true the younger the students are that I am working with**.

**Who also never fail to notice when my fly is down or that I have a booger hanging from my nose.

Lesson 4: Focus not on the art, but the illustration decisions your mentors have made.

  • This is a tough one. From time to time, I’ve slipped myself when it comes to this. But you are (presumably) not teaching art when engaging students in an illustration study. You are teaching them about the illustrating decisions that your mentors have made within a given piece of work. Here is a chart to illustrate (pun intended):
Instead of asking… Try asking…
“What color(s) did she use to create that sunset?” “How did she show her readers what time of day it is here [in this illustration]?”
“What materials did he use to illustrate this picture book?” “What kind of mood or tone do you think using bold lines and colors conveys?”
“How can we draw trees like Oliver Jeffers?” “Why do you think Oliver chose to accentuate the leaves in this tree, but drew this one like a big green bush?”

Lesson 5: Help your students see possibilities in their own work.

  • With illustration study–or any craft study, for that matter–it’s important to help students imagine how they could potentially make these same decisions (or different ones) in their own work. For example, after discussing the mood that Erin Stead’s work tends to lend to a story, help students imagine when they might use her soft colors and light lines in a book or illustration that they might make– or when they most definitely would not (in one of their approximately three dozen books about zombie sailors, for example).

Lesson 6: Tie what you and your students have learned about composing illustrations to what they can potentially learn about composing text.

  • As Katie “argues” in her book (although I couldn’t picture Katie arguing anything with that fabulous Southern lilt of hers), instead of favoring one ability (i.e., creating meaning visually versus verbally) over the other, why not support and strengthen both in our students? Sunni Brown, author of The Doodle Revolution, agrees, making a case for continuing to hone our visual literacy in conjunction with our verbal, textual, and numerical literacy. I mean, duh. (NOTE: If you want to know how to do this, read both Katie’s and Sunni’s book. Then call me so we can gush over them together.)

There are probably more lessons to glean from my limited experience, but my iced coffee has run out and my ADD is flaring up. I would love to know what your lessons learned are. Please share your experiences with illustration study below and let us all learn from your failures (kidding!). Until next time, my colleagues!


*In Pictures and In Words: Teaching the Qualities of Good Writing Through Illustration Study has an incredibly helpful number of resources if you’re feeling overwhelmed and need a place to start.

5 thoughts on “Everything I’ve Learned about Illustration Study…”

  1. It was hard to keep up with #5thchat tonight because I kept wanting to come over and read your blog. 🙂 I do picture book literature circles with my fourth graders early in the school year, and talking about the styles of the illustrations is an important part of our discussion. Having the document camera to project the illustrations has made such a difference! But I don’t think I’ve made the link between composing illustrations and composing text as clear as it could be…thanks for highlighting the suggestion!


    1. That is so kind to say, Emily. Thank you! If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to let me know. I’m still very early on in my understanding of how to best to do illustration study with students, so I’m always interested in chatting about it. We can learn together!


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